Forbes Magazine

Mission Over Profit: Slaying the Hungry Ghost Within

Recently, one of my clients left her position as head of human resources because she could not reconcile her company’s stated commitment to the wellbeing of its employees with the reality that its highest priority was wealth creation. The employees were stretched to a breaking point; chronic exhaustion and burnout were ubiquitous. The CEO clearly recognized that the health of employees impacted the bottom line and, as a result, he deemed this a core value. He directed my client to lead a key initiative to support “employee well being.” But in so doing, she became the face of hypocrisy since employees knew that the quality of their lives would continue to be sacrificed for the sake of aggressive corporate growth. Ultimately, it is not possible to serve two masters. We can collaborate, cooperate, and reconcile, but eventually we will be asked to choose. I have been thinking about this in relationship to two essential ‘master’ principles: organizational mission and the bottom line.

In the 1990’s John Elkington coined the phrase “triple bottom line,” arguing that business success should be defined by measuring profit, environmental responsibility, and social responsibility. This attempt to create a more responsible business ethic has been both revered and critiqued. In order to be effective, this kind of framework must be a living one - fluid, contextually responsive, and adaptive. In the end, any company attempting to live by this model will find itself, in certain moments, having to choose.

By contrast, a social enterprise serves one master: its purpose is to respond to societal needs in a creative and entrepreneurial way. There is a purity of intent in this, and, as a result, a clarity that arises in the decision making process when we are confronted with those moments of choice. With this clarity, the mission of an organization is, without a doubt, the guiding principle, and this increases the possibility that the values of the organization can also prevail.

How did we get to the point where, in mainstream business, the financial bottom line was placed above the very mission of our businesses?

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Grandma's Groceries: A Lesson in Becoming a Changemaker

My grandmother’s name was Flora, and she was all heart. Born and raised in Bristol, Tennessee, she had a deep connection to Appalachia. On occasion, I would ride with her into the Appalachian Mountains with a station wagon full of groceries to be delivered to several dirt-poor families that she watched out for. There wasn’t an arrogant bone in my grandmother’s body, a sense that she understood poverty from the inside out and took it in stride – both the fact of being poor and her service to those that needed help. As a result, there wasn’t shame in these exchanges, and I so loved accompanying her. There were other times, however, when I was embarrassed by my grandmother’s service. She had a compulsion to give, and this meant that she wasn’t always able to discern when to step in and when to step back. On occasion, I stood as witness as my grandma insisted on paying for someone else’s groceries – a random person that she thought might be struggling. There were times when this gesture was a lovely act of generosity. Other times, standing next to her, I wanted to sink into the earth, my body full of dread - a dead giveaway that my grandmother had overstepped an invisible boundary.

How do we figure out what is ours to pick up and what is not, particularly when we are exposed to problems around the globe 24/7?

“Dharma” is a Sanskrit word with multiple layers of meaning, referencing, in part, individual conduct that conforms to the principles or laws that order the universe. We discern our dharma not by measuring up to expectations from the external world but rather by searching for the truth within. When we respond to the demands of the world by aligning those demands with our inner truth, we are responding dharmically. When a child is born as a musical protégée, the relationship between dharma and service is relatively easy to discern. In my own life, it is quite clear that it is not my dharma to become a pilot or an electrical engineer.

The work of Ashoka, an organization that supports the social enterprise movement, calls on “everyone to be a changemaker.” There is a sense of urgency in this mission, a recognition that the problems in the world have grown so complex and intertwined that we need all minds, hearts, and hands on board to respond. This is best done through honoring the notion of dharma. As we call on every individual to become a changemaker, we are really calling on each person to discern and respond to his or her dharma.

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Respect the Creative Process: Wake Up and Let Yourself Rest

All of existence cycles between movement and rest. The breath flowing in and out of the body animates and then is released. When we work out, we tear muscle and then rest that muscle so that it heals in order to get stronger. Yet our organizations, more often than not, do not respect this oscillating rhythm. Somehow, we have gotten into the habit of putting the gas pedal to the floor and driving as fast and as furious as we can. Most organizations respect one rhythm only, and that rhythm is relentless. Creation cycles through four stages: 1) birth; 2) a time of sustenance that nurtures growth; 3) a time of concealment in which what is at work cannot be directly observed; 4) and a period of decay and death. Within organizations, we tend to favor birth and periods of growth and ignore concealment and decay or death. Cycles of death are often hoisted upon us, such as a committee that has outgrown its function or a company that winds up in bankruptcy. But the cycle that is most glaringly absent in business is concealment.

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Compassion: The Bedrock of the Capacity to Serve

The XIV Dalai Lama speaks during a confeSocial entrepreneurship has given me, and many others, a great deal of hope. With the overwhelming number of social ills in virtually every sector of our society, it is heartening to see the growth of a movement that combines the discipline, rigor, flexibility, and innovation of the entrepreneurial business sector with the core mission of delivering social value above all else, including wealth creation.  The movement, in part, challenges innovators to ask, how can we better meet the enormous challenges of the world around us, or, how can we better serve? The Dalai Lama, in his brilliant work “Ethics in a New Millennium,” postulates that the most basic truth which binds all humans together is our shared wish to be happy and to avoid suffering. He notes that this desire knows no bounds and that everything that we do, both as individuals and at the level of society, can be understood in terms of this fundamental aspiration.

Our universal desire to avoid suffering and to be happy is a starting point for establishing ethical principles. At its most basic, an ethical act is one that does not harm. A social mission, by definition, promotes happiness or addresses some aspect of culture that is harmful. In this way, social entrepreneurship is a gesture of ethics, an attempt to eradicate suffering and increase happiness. Implicit in this model is a recognition that that which is self serving leads to suffering.

With this as a starting point, we can understand the importance of cultivating our capacity to recognize the suffering of others. This recognition comes through empathy. The Dalai Lama notes that our innate capacity for empathy is the source of our most precious human quality, called “nying je” in the Tibetan language, and roughly translated as compassion. Empathy is a gateway to compassion, our inner tuning fork that allows us to perceive the inner state of others. Compassion is a deeper and more comprehensive construct, encompassing such virtues as love, humility, kindness, gentleness, generosity, and an innate awareness that all of existence is intricately interconnected. Compassion is the bedrock of our capacity to serve.

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